Hacienda Hopping in the Yucatan
by Gale Randall
Gale Randall is a Mexicophile hailing from Palo Alto, California. She has done numerous book reviews for the Mexico File.
We’re zipping along Hwy. 180 in the state of Yucatan on a tour of some restored henequen haciendas. Santana’s “Supernatural” is wafting from the CD player and Enrique Baqueiro, our guide from Turquoise Reef Travel in the coastal town of Playa del Carmen, is showing us some points of interest. Our first stop – the pastel colonial city of Valladolid, where we leave the van to photograph the vendors’ brilliant Yucatecan huipils on display around the zocalo. We don’t linger long in this pretty city, though, as we'’e anxious to see San Antonio Chalante, our first hacienda just outside the tiny hamlet of Sudzal.
Having begun life as a cattle ranch in the 1600's, Hacienda Chalante converted to the growing of henequen (oro verde, or green gold – a strong fiber used in rope making) in the late 19th century, and is now a very pleasant country inn with nine rooms and suites. Abandoned like some 300 sister haciendas in the 1950's when the henequen industry declined, Chalante was rescued from oblivion by Diane Dutton de Tuyub, an archaeologist, and other investors from Florida in 1997. The big draw at Chalante is horseback riding and I’d liken a stay here to a visit to that favorite uncle’s ranch in the country. We enter the hacienda through an enormous arch, a feature typical of all the haciendas, and encounter a horseman cantering along the road. Right away we’re taken on a tour of the property, its principal buildings and small cottages, and discover that all the guest rooms have names – there’s a Frida room (sporting Frida and Diego art), El Greco room, Mayan room and so on. Chalante, where the pleasant, simply furnished rooms run from $40 to $70 a night (including a full breakfast), is a real bargain, considering hacienda stays more typically can cost as much as $200 or more a night. Outside the original house, which sports an outdoor chapel, we meet Enrique, an enormous ostrich holding court in his own field (he doesn’t get along with the other ostriches), and watch the horsemen working the hacienda’s half dozen quarter horses. On our way out we encounter Diane Dutton, a friendly gal who’s just arrived by truck from her nearby ranch. We chat a few minutes then move on, thinking Chalante a great place to stay if you’re seeking peace and quiet and/or are into horses, and plan to explore the nearby Chichen Itza ruins and
Izamal.We plan to visit colonial Izamal, but first make a detour to Planta Henequenera Cordemex in Citilcun, one of the few remaining henequen plantations in the area. Freshly cut henequen is lying in stacks in a nearby field and Enrique explains the various steps the plant is taken through before the fibers are hauled out and transformed into rope. (This factory is definitely worth visiting, if you’re at all curious about the process of rope making.) We move on to Izamal, the “Ciudad Amarillo,” and view the enormous 16th century convent built in the city’s center by Franciscan monks on top of a Mayan temple. The convent, from which one can view the nearby pyramid of Kinichkakmo, seems to loom over this unusual town, where most of the buildings are painted a deep yellow. Our next stop is San Jose Cholul near Tixcocob, a hacienda 45 minutes east of Merida. On the long drive in, San Jose’s colorful pavilions – some painted a distinctive shade of Frida Kahlo blue – suddenly loom into view. And it quickly becomes apparent why this hacienda, a former nobleman’s estate and reputedly a popular trysting spot for romantics, is considered the most stunning of the four haciendas restored by Banamex executive Roberto Hernandez and his Grupo Plan (the others are Santa Rosa,
Temozon and Uayamon): The pastel yellow, blue and ochre colonial-era buildings cluster around an expansive and particularly exquisite tropical courtyard planted in jacaranda, bougainvillea, native grasses and cacti. A guide shows us the principal buildings: the Cuarto del Patron, owner’s house, and a lovely colonial chapel with 18th century frescoes where hotel guests can actually get married. There’s a pleasant reading room with extensive library next to the chapel, and 15 guest rooms and suites. Executed in a style I’d call colonial high tech, the rooms (many with private plunge pools) sport wooden furniture, tile floors and luxurious tile baths, and look very inviting. In a far corner of the property we spot the enormous modernistic pool with Jacuzzi that was refashioned from the estate’s old stone irrigation system and which debuted on a cover of Conde Nast Traveler. Our tour over, we settle down to a lunch of tasty tostadas, salads and flan in San Jose’s porticoed dining room, allowing the ambiance of this incredibly beautiful place to fully sink in.
Our last stop – Hacienda Katanchel, just east of Merida. We approach Katanchel on a back road, and when we reach its arched entrance, find the place to be desolate, unoccupied, and it soon becomes apparent why: Hurricane Isidore had wreaked so much havoc here in the fall of ‘02 that Katanchel has been closed. It won’t re-open until June of 2003 (or later), a young gatekeeper tells us. He lets us poke around some of the back red-hued pavilions, which are surrounded by jungle debris. What a disappointment, as we’d so wanted to explore Katanchel! The 741-acre property features 33 private pavilions (all with plunge pools) in former workers’ cottages, and several stunning public rooms in the Casa de Maquinas (machine house), in a very jungly setting. Katanchel even boasts its own Mayan ruin, an astronomical observatory dating from the 3rd century AD. It seems we’ll just have to return someday.
For more hacienda information –
Hacienda Chalante: www.macanche.com; Tel: 011-52-988-954-0287.Hacienda San Jose Cholul: www.luxurycollection.com; Tel: in Mexico, 011-52-999-923-8089, in U.S., 1-800-325-3589.Hacienda Katanchel: www.hacienda-katanchel.com; Tel: 011-52-999-923-4020.